Sixers finally look like themselves

This article was originally published in the Daily News on April 16, 2001.

It's a good thing Larry Brown wasn't worried about making any statements to any teams after his Sixers clinched the best overall record in the Eastern Conference last Monday.

After a close loss to the Miami Heat and a blowout loss at Orlando, the only suggestion the Sixers served up to potential playoff opponents was "Take Out. "

In fact, despite leading the Eastern Conference from start to finish, the Sixers have done little to instill fear that they'll be an invincible juggernaut once the playoffs begin.

It's been just the opposite.

By posting a pedestrian, 14-11 record since making the blockbuster trade for center Dikembe Mutombo, and going 3-11 against teams with winning records, the Sixers have inspired more trepidation than confidence about their postseason readiness.

So don't think yesterday's 89-82 victory over the New York Knicks wasn't a big deal. In fact, depending on how the Sixers carry on from tomorrow's night game in Indianapolis to however long they last in the playoffs, it might go down as their most significant victory of the season.

"This game was really important,'' said guard Eric Snow. "To beat a playoff team, and from the way things are now, it's a team we could meet early in the playoffs.

"We're in, but we want to use these last games to get momentum and try to play the right way, the way we've been playing most of the season. ''

Yesterday's effort was about as close as the Sixers had come to playing that way against a good team since beating the Milwaukee Bucks, 90-78, on March 26.

It's the style of play the Sixers absolutely have to maintain if they are going to be anything more than a disappointing early out in the postseason.

Like it or not, the Sixers were built by Brown to play a specific way.

They win by relying on high-energy defense, rebounding and the uncanny scoring ability of Allen Iverson.

That's it. That's how they have to do things. There is no backup plan. There is little room for fault in execution.

"This is our team,'' Brown said after the Sixers held the Knicks to 39 percent shooting and outrebounded them, 49-33. "We get beat when we don't defend, don't get loose balls and rebounds. It's not about our missing shots. I'm encouraged when we win with defense and rebounding. That is the only way this team is going to survive. ''

It's a fragile line the Sixers walk.

If they play the "right way" - Brown's way - they can live up to the playoff expectations resulting from a 55-, 56- or 57-victory season, and win the Eastern Conference.

If they don't, the First Union Center, which was anticipating a long run in the NBA playoffs, could be dark before Memorial Day.

"This was a nice game and win for us,'' guard Aaron McKie said of the victory over New York. "The Knicks are a fundamentally sound team that is going to do all the little things and make you work.

"It wasn't so much that we had stopped trying to play the way that we wanted to, but today I think we wanted to make a statement as far as our identity and how we are going to perform the rest of the season. ''

New York was trying to deliver the same "the playoffs are going to be different'' message to the Sixers that the Magic, Heat, Bucks and Toronto Raptors had laid out recently. The way things stand, the Knicks and Sixers would meet in the second round if both advance.

The Knicks desperately did not want to fall to 1-3 against Philadelphia.

That's why it was so encouraging to see the Sixers turn a slim, 79-77 lead into an 89-82 victory in the final 3 minutes. They did it by playing Sixers basketball.

"We had to stay poised,'' McKie said. "I think we did a good job down the stretch because we got the stops when we needed to. We played a strong team that makes you play basketball and make plays. ''

Making plays is the only thing that matters from here on out.

There's no more time to worry about still getting used to Mutombo or lamenting about Snow, McKie and others still being affected by injury.

The losses in Miami and Orlando makes it less advisable to use tomorrow's game in Indiana and Wednesday's regular season finale against Chicago to rest players as opposed to keeping them sharp and in rhythm.

Whatever they rediscovered yesterday against New York, it is imperative that the Sixers keep the momentum.

On Saturday or Sunday, the Sixers will open the playoffs. And if they aren't playing their style of basketball on a consistent basis, it's going to be a much shorter stay than anyone anticipated.